The pressure mounts on defiant Clarke

The greater the clamour for Charles Clarke's head, the more determined the Prime Minister becomes to keep his Home Secretary. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines says the Prime Minister's resolve might evaporate if Labour is humiliated in today's council elections.

The greater the clamour for Charles Clarke's head, the more determined the Prime Minister becomes to keep his Home Secretary. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines says the Prime Minister's resolve might evaporate if Labour is humiliated in today's council elections.

THE law on the deportation of foreign nationals is to be toughened - and such a change has been in preparation “for some months”.

And with this equivalent of a two fingered salute, a defiant Charles Clarke signalled to MPs that he has no intention of quitting the Home Office.

He conceded, without any hint of irony, that “this has been an unedifying episode for all of us in the Home Office who are charged with the protection of the public. But I said I would stay and put the situation right.”

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In other words, if the Prime Minister thinks his Home Secretary has fouled up big time, it's up to Tony Blair to sack him in the imminent Cabinet reshuffle.

There was only the merest hint yesterday that Mr Blair is thinking of that as he implicated previous home secretaries of all political parties in the current mess, which has seen convicted overseas rapists, murderers, drug dealers and paedophiles being released from British jails back into the community rather than being deported.

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“It is completely wrong to say that this problem was created or began under this Home Secretary,” replied to withering questions from Conservative leader David Cameron.

Mr Cameron, who accused the Prime Minister of “completely losing control” hit back: “People listening to that answer will frankly think it's pathetic.

“This scandal has happened on his watch and he can't run away from responsibility for it. The fact is, 1,000 people were released from prison and their deportation wasn't even considered.”

The Home Secretary's precarious position worsened on Tuesday after disclosures that a suspect wanted for the killing of PC Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford had been considered for deportation just months before she was murdered.

Rather than damping down, the furore over Mr Clarke's admission that convicted criminals from overseas were now on the loose having served sentences is growing in volume. Even mild mannered Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell stirred himself to join in yesterday's Commons fray, suggesting: “Isn't what we need is less legislation, better Government and a new Home Secretary?”

The last thing Mr Blair would do is agree with the Liberal Democrats - he seems to despise them more than he does the Tories. Sir Menzies, he said, had voted against measures taken to tighten up the law on asylum and illegal immigration, as well as legislation on criminal justice and anti-social behaviour. “There are people I will take lessons on in relation to law and order but not Liberal Democrats.”

But it was the Tory leader who really had the wind in his sails, scenting blood in the air as the hapless Mr Clarke was forced to listen to a barrage of condemnation from the benches opposite.

“This Home Secretary will forever be associated with the scandal of releasing foreign prisoners on to our streets,” stormed Mr Cameron. ”While you keep him in office your claim to be tough on crime will be completely hollow.”

Not so, came the answer from the Prime Minister - who, incidentally, was wearing a sacred Hindu red threat on his wrist depicting attachment to the Mother Goddess Shaki, who symbolises strength. It was “right” for the Home Secretary to remain in post to sort out a system that “has not worked properly for decades”.

Mr Clarke's announcement of a change in the law was upstaged by the Prime Minister, who gave details 30 minutes ahead of the Home Secretary's statement. That was that merest of signs that perhaps Mr Clarke may not survive much longer.

“I think it is now time that anybody who is convicted of an imprisonable offence and who is a foreign national is deported,” said Mr Blair, in a futile attempt to take the initiative in Commons exchanges.

As with the Lib Dems, the Tories were roundly condemned for their voting record as the Prime Minister tried to swim against the tide.

“When the Government introduced a provision in the 2002 Asylum Act to say that anybody convicted of an offence carrying more than two years in prison should not be eligible for asylum and therefore could be deported - your party opposed that amendment.

“In addition, when we introduced the Criminal Justice Act, that allowed us to do the early removal of these prisoners - instead of waiting to the end of their sentence, we could remove them early - your party also voted against that Act.

“I suggest we now take the measures necessary, not just to improve the way the existing system works . . . but change that fundamentally for the future.”

In his statement to MPs, Mr Clarke said another 11 serious offenders had also been identified. Of the 1,023 cases, 574 cases were being considered for deportation, of which 554 have been completed, and in all 446 are to be deported.

He said he would publish a consultation paper by the end of May to set up a new system where foreign criminals “should expect to be deported”.

But will he? Yes, the Home Secretary might, but will the office be held by the Norwich South MP?

Much depends on the outcome of today's local elections in London and a number of shire, unitary and metropolitan districts.

If Labour is thumped at the polls, the pressure will be on Tony Blair from dissident elements within his own party. To save himself, the Prime Minister will do what all his predecessors have done - undertake a mass cull of Cabinet ministers.

And should exit polls indicate that people have turned away from Labour because of the prisoner release scandal, Mr Blair might decide it's time for his old friend to leave the lofty precincts of the Home Office.

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